Another round of fascinating Premier League fixtures awaits at the start of 2019.
Here, Press Association Sport picks out five of the main talking points.
Where else to start than Thursday, when the Etihad Stadium will play host to the biggest game of the campaign: the potentially season-defining clash between leaders Liverpool and reigning champions Manchester City. Jurgen Klopp’s Reds make the trip east along the M62 in fine form, having accrued 54 points from their opening 20 fixtures – a record only bettered by Chelsea in 2005-06 and City last term.
Pep Guardiola’s men brought a timely end to their two-match losing run by beating Southampton on Sunday and now need to make a dent on the seven-point gap to Liverpool. Klopp has got the better of City in recent big encounters and Guardiola will need to think outside the box to stop them this time.
Manchester United were lifeless in defeat to bitter rivals Liverpool on December 17 – a 3-1 loss that proved the final straw for the powers that be, with Jose Mourinho swiftly shown the exit door after two-and-a-half years.
Fan favourite Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has been parachuted into the hotseat and could scarcely have wished for a better start to life as caretaker manager, having joined Sir Matt Busby and Mourinho as the only managers in United’s history to have begun their reign with three straight league wins.
They have also entertained, netting 12 goals in the process, and head to St James’ Park looking to continue their 100 per cent record against a Newcastle side that have stuttered recently.
Many people wrote off promoted Cardiff as relegation certainties before a ball had been kicked, yet they enter 2019 three points clear of the dropzone in 16th place. Neil Warnock has the side as well organised as you would expect, with Tuesday’s match offering the chance for them to record three straight top-flight clean sheets for the first time since 1957.
That sturdy defence saw them return to Wales with four points from the trips to Crystal Palace and Leicester, where the Bluebirds secured a 1-0 win at the same time as Tottenham’s five-match winning run came to a crushing halt. Just as momentum was building along with talk of a title tilt, Wolves landed a 3-1 gut punch at Wembley that leaves Mauricio Pochettino’s men with a mental hurdle to overcome as well as the physical questions brought at this time of year.
After a memorable 2017-18 campaign, it is far to say things have gone awry for Burnley so far this term. Pressure has been mounting on Sean Dyche for the first time in his reign after a run of six defeats in seven matches – poor form that the Clarets managed to halt on Sunday. Dwight McNeil, one of five changes, completed a 2-0 win against West Ham that still leaves them in the relegation places, but only on goal difference.
Wednesday offers 18th-place Burnley the chance to improve their position when rock-bottom Huddersfield come to town. David Wagner’s men are five points from safety after losing all seven games in December. After going down late at Fulham in their last match of 2018, they can ill afford to start the New Year with another loss.
Bournemouth started off the season as many neutrals’ favourites, thanks to their attack-minded style and ability to play above themselves. Callum Wilson, Ryan Fraser and Co were flying high in the top six at the start of December but have quietly gone about dropping to 12th in the standings after a poor run.
Eddie Howe’s men have lost eight of their last 10 matches in the league, as well as going out of the Carabao Cup, and saw their 5-0 Boxing Day defeat at Tottenham compounded by a 4-1 loss at Manchester United. The fixture list has been cruel, but getting 2019 off to winning start against Watford can kickstart a season that could yet end memorably.